Perhaps in the last year or so, you’ve walked into your favourite watering hole and noticed what looks like a small keg perched horizontally on the bar. If you are there at the right time, you might get to witness its tapping amongst great ceremony as someone drives a spigot into its side, and after a bit of spray and much cheering, beer begins to flow. If you try some, you’ll notice it’s cloudier, less carbonated, and a bit warmer than the regular draft beer you’ve been ordering. You’d be correct on all three counts. Welcome to the world of cask-conditioned beer.
So what exactly is cask-conditioned beer? First, a little history. For most of the 10,000 year or so history of beer, it has been served from large vessels. The beer bottle has only been around for about 300 years, the beer can for less than 80. Cask simply means container, and from clay to wood, stainless steel to aluminum, and rubber to plastic, beer casks have evolved to serve two purposes; how to make the beer inside last longer, and how to get it out faster. Of course, this has influenced the development and evolution of the beer therein, and that has led to the modern keg.
The era of Big Breweries has seen mass-produced beer, travelling further afield from the brewery, and the need to be consistent. Filtering and pasteurizing beer made the yeast inactive and lengthened the beer’s life span. Pressurizing both the kegs and the draft systems with gas (usually carbon dioxide) made the beer flow smoothly, fast, and created a nice head of foam. While this became the accepted norm for North America’s light, yellow, fizzy lagers and ales, this did not sit well with the British pub drinker.
Traditionally, ales in the UK were stored in, and dispensed out of, wooden barrels; kept in a cool room, and poured by gravity or a hand pump. Wooden barrels restricted the amount of carbonation a beer could have before they were compromised, and cellar temperatures often hovered in the 10-12o C range. This led to the old axiom that British beers were all “warm and flat”, which is a bit of an exaggeration. Yet this style of beer remained, even as wood barrels gave way to metal.
After the end of World War II, as small breweries got gobbled up by big consortiums, many were forced to close. The quality of the beer suffered and by the late 1960s, keg beer began to dominate; filtered, pasteurized, artificially carbonated and pushed through tap systems by more CO2. This “new” beer in no way resembled the traditional ale, and caused a not-so-quiet revolution, demanding the return to the ales of yore.
So, in 1971, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)* was founded to save what came to be termed “real ale”. They defined real ale as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”. This means these beers are not only unfiltered and unpasteurized, but contain active live yeast. Because of this, their flavours continue to mature (condition) as the beer ages, but it also means it has a very short shelf life, of only a couple of days maximum once it is tapped. For this reason, almost all cask-conditioned beers will come from local breweries, but this also gives the brewmaster opportunities to experiment with different versions of their regular beers or create completely new recipes.
If you’d like to try these beers, very few places in Calgary have a permanent beer engine that pushes the beer out without the aid of gas. Try Bottlescrew Bill’s Pub (140 10 Ave SW), which also offers a cask of real ale every Thursday starting at 4 pm. Wild Rose Brewery Taproom at Currie Barracks (4580 Quesnay Wood Drive SW), tap a cask of one of their beers every Friday at 4:00 pm.
Other Locations Featuring Cask Ales:
Beer Revolution (1080 8 St SW) Each Friday at 5 pm, Beer Revolution offers up a cask, usually from Brewsters Brewery, but also other local breweries.
Craft Beer Market (345 10 Ave SW) offers a cask-conditioned beer every Tuesday at 4 pm. If you like to try several cask-conditioned beers at once, their annual Caskapalooza Festival runs every August and features local beers and more than a dozen beers from BC and the United States.
Libertine Public House (223 8 Ave SW) At 5 pm on the second Thursday of each month, Libertine presents a cask from local breweries.
Pig & Duke Neighborhood Pub (1312 12 Ave SW) This pub is known for its beer selection and has cask nights on selective days each month. Follow their Twitter feed (@PIGandDUKE) to keep up to date.
One thing is certain, cask ale’s popularity is growing, and once these casks have been tapped, they empty quickly. Also look for them at Calgary International Beerfest in May, Oktoberfest in September, and special events throughout the year at various locations.
*For more information on upcoming cask nights or to join CAMRA Alberta, see camraalberta.com.